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Seattle's grand dame: the Fairmont Olympic Hotel

A veteran travel writer offers this brief history of one of the city's oldest, poshest social hubs.
A postcard image of the Olympic Hotel, built in 1924.

A postcard image of the Olympic Hotel, built in 1924. Historylink

Today's Fairmont Olympic Hotel.

Today's Fairmont Olympic Hotel. Fairmont Olympic Hotel

Even with all the hotels that have popped up in Seattle during the past few years (Four Seasons Hotel Seattle (opened yesterday), Hotel 1000, Pan Pacific Seattle), along with a new property scheduled to open in 2009 (Hyatt at Olive 8), the grande dame of them all is still garnering accolades. The Fairmont Olympic Hotel, which opened in downtown Seattle as The Olympic in 1924, was recently named by Forbes Traveler 400 as the No. 1 hotel in Washington state. In fact, it was the only hotel in the state to be included in the elite group of 400 hotels and resorts around the world.

The winners were selected by a "board of experts," consisting of dozens of business leaders who are either CEOs, prominent travelers, tour operators, travel industry executives, elite travel agents, or editors/writers. They rated the five-star hotels where they recently stayed, and the writers who reviewed them did not accept complimentary accommodations.

At the other end of the spectrum of reviewers, Conde Nast Traveler's 21st Annual Readers' Choice Awards 2008 ranked The Fairmont Olympic Hotel No. 42 among the top 100 hotels in the United States (No. 1 was Chicago's The Peninsula).

Located on a 10-acre city-center tract deeded to the University of Washington by Seattle pioneer Arthur A. Denny and others in 1861, The Olympic was financed by 4,500 individual investors (the name Olympic was selected in a contest sponsored by The Seattle Times.) According to Alan J. Stein, author of The Olympic: The Story of Seattle's Landmark Hotel, it opened to great fanfare:

On the night of December 6, lights placed on surrounding buildings illuminated the exterior walls of The Olympic. Two large spotlights on the hotel roof swept the sky. The Stars and Stripes fluttered on the rooftop flagpole above the white and blue house flag emblazoned with the Olympic crest. Inside, vases and jardinières filled with exotic flowers occupied nearly every corner and every table of every room. By 7:00 p.m., the streets surrounding the building were crowded, both by those attending the gala affair and by others who just wanted to peek in through the windows and front door. Fore more than an hour, cars lined up to let of passengers. The men wore fine suits or tuxedoes, and the women, elegant gowns and fur.

The hotel's construction cost? Four million dollars, with more than $800,000 spent on furnishings. The modified Italian Renaissance style hotel was decorated with hundreds of antique mirrors, bronze statuary, and terrazzo floors installed by workmen who journeyed from Italy. It soon became Seattle's premier venue for social, civic, and corporate gatherings.

Over the years, the hotel has had its share of famous visitors and guests, many documented (some with photos) in the book: Charles Lindbergh, Franklin D. Roosevelt, J. Edgar Hoover, Joan Crawford, Bob Hope, Haile Selassie, John F. Kennedy and The Rolling Stones. I spotted a familiar face once while having a martini in the Terrace Room. It looked just like Meathead of All in the Family; the waitress checked his signature and yes, it was Rob Reiner. Also on the Hollywood front, the lobby and exterior appeared briefly in the 1973 film Harry in Your Pocket; the Spanish Ballroom was used in the 1977 TV movie Eleanor and Franklin; and scenes from the 1994 Barry Levinson-directed movie Disclosure, starring Michael Douglas and Demi Moore, were filmed here.

The hotel has gone through several changes of ownership over the years. In 1955, Western Hotels (which eventually become Western International and then Westin Hotels & Resorts) bought it. The hotel switched hands when it reopened as the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel in 1982, following a two-year, $62.5 million restoration and modernization. In 2003, the signage changed again, this time to Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. Two years later, it underwent another refurbishment and restoration, bringing back the original luster of the main lobby and surrounding public spaces. Today, it is known as The Fairmont Olympic Hotel, but for locals who have long thought of it as the living room and social hub of Seattle, it will always be The Olympic.

Sue Frause is a Whidbey Island freelance writer and photographer. You can reach her at sue@suefrause.com.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Nov 4, 12:59 p.m. Inappropriate

What was the story with respect to that 4500 investors? Isn't that unusual?
Who was the architect? Walt Crowley says it was W. E Dwyer (in National Trust Guide, Seattle, 88). With all the name architects in town, how did that come about? What was the story there?

Posted Tue, Nov 4, 3:44 p.m. Inappropriate

Erin: Here is a link with most of the answers to your questions, I think. Word count precluded me from going much deeper than I did -- hope this helps Just copy/paste into your browser. Thanks, Sue Frause

(The book mentioned in the article also has in-depth details on the building of the hotel -- available online (there's a link in the article) and through The Fairmont Olympic Hotel's gift shop -- or I'll loan you mine!).

http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?displaypage=output.cfm&file;_id=2028

Posted Wed, Dec 2, 1:36 p.m. Inappropriate

RE the governor's shortfall: Amazing! The Legislative Workgroup for the SR 520 Bridge Replacement and HOV project--that's just one part of what WSDOT is now calling the SR 520 Program, the part that runs from I-5 to Medina--just endorsed a seven-lane wide, 30-feet high design that will cost exactly half of that $9.3 billion or some other $9.3 billion down the pot-holed road. WSDOT has been telling us that the floating part of the bridge is in danger of failing in the next storm or the one after that. Instead of fixing the floating part of the bridge, the state is insisting on a mammoth $4.65 billion project that will irrevocably ruin one of the most beautiful viewsheds in our city. The governor endorsed an original six-lane design that has morphed into seven lanes over the Portage Bay Bridge, with higher pontoons topped by columns and then the bridge deck (about three stories high) for the floating part of the bridge. At a full City Council hearing last week, WSDOT floated the idea of High Capacity Transit (light rail) above the SOV, HOV, and bus traffic, which would take the height of the floating bridge to about five stories. Communities adjacent to the bridge--Laurelhurst, Madison Park, Montlake, the Boating Community, Portage Bay, North Capitol Hill, and the Roanoke Park Historic District--are opposing this monstrous design and advocating immediately fixing the bridge that WSDOT says will fail. Then we can take a deep breath and a hard look at this 1960s-style project that will put backed up single occupancy vehicles alongside and into our city's neighborhoods. WSDOT's "traffic congestion management program," that is, variable tolling, which was developed to discourage SOV traffic and permit us to study demand, if both SR 520 and I-90 are tolled, is now viewed in the Legislative Workgroup's laugh of a "Financial Strategy" as a significant revenue-raising tool to finance this grandiose project. The irony that a successful traffic congestion management program would result in reduced tolling revenues is lost on the Legislative Workgroup. And on the King County Council, which endorsed this ugly design last week. We can only hope that the irony and the certain damage to our beautiful city is not lost on the City Council, which will vote December 8 on whether to endorse it, too. (Write to them!) Health care is slashed, good social programs fall by the wayside, class sizes grow, our infrastructure is dangerous--I haven't even mentioned global warming and our dependence on oil--and our government bodies want to spend an astronomical amount of money, half of our discretionary funds, on more concrete and exhaust. The massive 8 to 22 feet noise walls designed into the project to protect the neighborhoods from increased air and noise pollution would damage the views not only from the neighborhoods but from the bridge itself, a SEPA-protectd Scenic Highway that offers sensational views of Mt. Rainier and the other Cascades to travelers east across Portage Bay and the lake and the Olympics to travelers west. This is nuts. When the time comes, that is, when we have the money, the inexorable progress of events will have shown us the wisdom of a more modest, green four-lane design that widens shoulders for disabled vehicles, provides for bicycles and pedestrians, and anticipates light rail handled intelligently. For now, funds earmarked for transportation should be spent on fixing life-threatening vulnerable infrastructure. And yes, we are long overdue for a progressive income tax.
Erin O'Connor

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